The Riveters’ next coach needs to be chosen carefully

Will the Riveters be the last team to hire a head coach for the second consecutive offseason?

Last season, the Metropolitan Riveters were the most disappointing team in the NWHL. After emerging victorious in the 2018 Isobel Cup Finals, the Riveters were expected to be contenders with the return of Team USA star winger Amanda Kessel to the fold, but that was not what happened. Instead, the Riveters began the season in alarming fashion with five consecutive losses. And, generally speaking, things didn’t improve much after that.

The team’s struggles put first-year head coach Randy Velischek on the hot seat in short order. Like his predecessor Chad Wiseman, Velischek is an NHL veteran with ties to the New Jersey Devils organization. But, unlike Wiseman, he entered his first season behind the Riveters’ bench in the wake of a hugely successful championship campaign.

Needless to say, expectations were high for Velischek.

Randy Velischek on the state of the Riveters

To be fair to Velischek, he had never before coached girls’ or women’s hockey, and he didn’t have a lot of time to learn what he was working with. He was hired at the eleventh hour, brought in just over a week before the Riveters played in the first-ever Champions Cup. It’s also crucial to point out that NWHL teams hold two practices a week, which left very little time for the new head coach to work with his team during the season itself. With all of that being said, Velischek’s tenure as coach was an overwhelming disappointment.

The Riveters finished the 2018–19 regular season with a 4–12–0 record and a –35 goal differential. The club struggled both at even strength and on special teams, finishing the season with the worst penalty kill in the league and an abysmal 9.7 percent success rate on the power play. The Riveters were also much too dependent on Kessel and Madison Packer to carry the offense. In short, they looked nothing like the team that took the league by storm the year before.

For all of those reasons and more, the Riveters need to take a different direction. The Riveters and Connecticut Whale are the only teams in the league who are still searching for a head coach. Given the discontent expressed by fans after last offseason’s long wait for Wiseman’s successor, it’s safe to assume that the NWHL already begun the search for the Riveters’ next bench boss in earnest.

With the partnership between the Riveters and Devils now severed, there’s little incentive to replace Velischek with another Devils alumni. The priority for the NWHL and general manager Kate Whitman-Annis should be finding a local coach who has experience coaching women’s and/or girl’s hockey — in a timely fashion — to avoid a repeat of what we saw unfold last offseason. This is something that the league needs to get right.

Potential candidates

Jon de Castro — De Castro, who has ties to famed New York Islanders goaltending guru Mitch Korn, was the Riveters’ goaltending coach in the team’s inaugural season. Last year, he reconnected with the club as a “goalie advisor” and spent at least one game behind the bench. With all three Riveters goalies from last season’s roster participating in the #ForTheGame movement, de Castro could give the Riveters a much-needed edge in net.

His familiarity with the NWHL and experience coaching girls’ and women’s hockey is definitely a big plus. It’s also worth noting that he was the head coach of the Philippines’ men’s national team in 2018. Over the years, de Castro has proven himself to be a versatile, capable coach who excels at developing players.

However, it seems unlikely — or at least uncertain — that de Castro would be able to take on head coaching responsibilities. In addition to operating his own Goaltending Academy, he’s an assistant coach at Manhattanville College.

Lorna Gifis Cook — Many were surprised when Cook didn’t succeed Wiseman after his departure. A former D-III top scorer at Middlebury College, Cook was one of the Riveters’ assistant coaches when the team won the 2018 Isobel Cup.

Like de Castro, the New Jersey native is familiar with the NWHL and the Riveters organization. Her knowledge of the team and opposing players in the league would be a tremendous asset behind the bench. In addition to her NWHL coaching experience, Cook has also been a fixture in developing local talent in girls’ hockey for over a decade.

The 77 goals Cook scored at Middlebury during her 101-game collegiate career are evidence that she would probably have some ideas on how to improve the team’s power play. There’s also something to be said about having a coach who has an intimate knowledge of the game and who can also get on the ice for practices and get involved in drills.

Cook is currently the head coach of the girls’ varsity team at the Princeton Day School, so it’s unclear whether she would be able to take on the duties of head coach for the Riveters. Her already hockey-filled schedule kept her from attending all of the team’s practices back in 2017–18. Although it’s worth noting that is not at all unusual among NWHL players and coaches.

If Cook’s schedule excludes her from head coaching duties, the league should still pursue her as an assistant, especially if there’s going to be a coach  who’s inexperienced with the women’s game behind the bench. It was surprising that Cook wasn’t brought back last season.

Terry Watt — Watt was added to the Riveters’ coaching staff last season with just one game remaining in the regular season. A defenseman during his own playing career, Watt appeared to make an immediate impact by studying film and looking for the tendencies of the opposition. Granted, it was a very small sample size, but Watt could be an interesting option to consider.

Kate Whitman-Annis — Whitman-Annis was an assistant coach under Velischek last season and was named the team’s first general manager since Chad Wiseman on April 25. Like Wiseman, she could wear two hats at once and take on head coaching duties if she and/or the league is unable to find another candidate. She could also take on the role of interim head coach if she and the league want to consider holding a tryout camp like the Minnesota Whitecaps are doing later this month.

In addition to her experience as an assistant coach at the pro level, Whitman-Annis is currently the head coach of the varsity girls’ ice hockey team at The Pingry School. So, there’s a good chance that she might not be able to add another ball to the ones that she is already juggling. The more likely scenario here is that she assists behind the bench and searches for candidates among the preexisting relationships she has in the hockey world.